In Western society it is considered impolite to state obvious things. No one mentions that a dullard is dull, since insulting the witless is seen as an effective self-indictment.
And so in rhetorical combat we do the opposite. Since imbeciles, no matter how grasping or malicious, are viewed as expedients rather than competition, they are lavished with false praise while being used as leverage against our true rival. If I want to demoralize and impoverish you and Pete is a retard, then all Pete has ever asked is for an opportunity to overcome your oppression. Why won’t you help him? Why do you hate him so?
One of the most vivid examples of this social phenomenon occurred during the 1992 presidential campaign during the vice presidential debate. Clinton and Bush I had dispatched their attack dogs, Al Gore and Dan Quayle, to maul each other along with Ross Perot’s envoy, retired Admiral James Stockdale. Now Admiral Stockdale was, by the few accounts I have read, a good and honorable man. And one who was absolutely capable during his professional prime (being shot down in Vietnam notwithstanding). But in 1992 he was operating neither within his profession nor his prime. And his opponents smelled blood–each other’s.
As the debate commenced, it became apparent immediately that Stockdale was in a knife-fight with a nerf-ball. Gore and Quayle, whose famed inarticulateness was an entirely media-contrived meme, were seasoned and polished pugilists. Both possessing that most critical political skill: the ability to compellingly argue a position without ever touching the truth. In comparison, Stockdale could barely conquer a complete sentence. It was grueling to watch.
Though in that unique artifact of Western morality, Stockdale’s stammering rhetorical helplessness made him effectively untouchable by his two opponents. As Gore and Quayle parried frantically, calling each other everything but a holstein in the process, Stockdale’s infrequent and feeble retorts were met with mostly polite indulgence. As I said, insulting an invalid is seen as a self-indictment. We do not use words to convey what our senses make apparent. So neither did his opponents.
But what if words, and the ideas attached thereto, were capable of overcoming the conclusions our senses would lead us to reach? Watching that 1992 debate, most people felt embarrassed for Stockdale and less impressed with Perot for having perched him so awkwardly. That was a sensory-derived internal evaluation. Though imagine if the audience had instead been hypnotized by the stage presentation our decorum demanded. The post-debate reactions would have been much different. In contrast to each other, both Gore and Quayle concurred that Stockdale was a valiant war-time hero and an honest, distinguished gentleman, with neither offering barely a peep of protest to his statements. Plainly everyone in the room agreed Stockdale was the superior man and candidate. Why should he not be Vice President?
Can you imagine how rapidly society world descend into dysfunction if people came to believe the narratives of social etiquette rather than their own eyes? If there were groups whose lurid pathologies and dismal performance made them practically invincible to public rebuke? If society’s Gore and Quayle factions did nothing but nod obsequiously as the Stockdales consumed ever-larger swaths of public stage? Eventually they’d each be teetering on real-estate the size of a sand-dollar while demanding the other explain their reprehensible bias against the sprawling good Admiral.
I almost think some of you can imagine it.